Innovation has layers that shear against each other.

“Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick”

There is so much built in tension, bias, barriers, mindsets, mental model conflicts, and all types of friction seemingly going on around us, you must sometimes think all our organizations can only be totally dysfunctional.

The Scream by Edvard Munch for Dysfunctional Organizations

Has anyone not come across some or all of these?

Dysfunctional leadership symptoms and those typical warning signs of dictatorial leadership, no feedback on performance, personal agendas, more ‘political’ compensation than ‘performance related ones, inefficient use of resources, empire-building practices, unequal workload distribution, too much management, fragmented organization efforts.

There is simply just too much talk, ineffective  and incessant meetings, a lack of collaboration across departments, ‘selective’ low productivity when you are working way beyond the normal, feeling in a constant crisis mode, watching a morale deterioration take place before your eyes, the,  backstabbing, starving projects of essential resources and finally, working in highly stressful workplaces.

A pretty depressing list isn’t it? I’m sure you can think of a few more besides.

When you are up against some or all of these how can you feel trust, belief and be innovative? Partly from what I’ve been reading and from my own perspective let me offer some thoughts to reduce some of these unhealthy tensions organizations seem to have, that certainly act as real constraints for innovation to really take hold.

How can you break into this and design something different?

Recently a number of comments have triggered my thinking about this whole area of blockages that seem to not allow innovation to take hold in organizations the way it needs too. The writing of Scott Anthony recently under the article “Negotiating Innovation & Control”, the book “Relentless Innovation” and stream of thought provoking views of Jeffrey Phillips wanting us to challenge the “Business as Usual” approach.

Then we have Gary Hamel in his new book “What Matters Now”  where he shares his agenda for building organizations, that can flourish in a world of diminished hopes, relentless change and ferocious competition. This is not a book about doing better. This is an impassioned plea to reinvent management as we know it—to rethink the fundamental assumptions we have about capitalism, organizational life, and the meaning of work.

Each has a theme running through them in different ways, the need to achieve continuous innovation needs a massive change in mindset and in managing the ‘heart’ of the organization. This heart is unhealthy and will need new values, new processes and new belief systems. You add in calls from John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Ranjay Gulati  and countless others, we are in need of a more radical agenda to rethink management, not just for innovation management.

The legend of the Gordian Knot

Some time back Chuck Frey, well known in innovation circles, wrote about the Gordian Knot. “For people the world over, the Gordian Knot represents the difficult, the intractable and often the insolvable problem. Today’s systemic business problems are the modern-day equivalent of this seemingly impossible challenge.

According to Greek mythology,  the huge, ball-like Turkish knot with no ends exposed was impossible to untie. An oracle had predicted that the first person to do so would become the ruler of all Asia. Thousands of people had tried, without success, to unlock its complex riddles. Alexander of Macedonia, son of King Philip II of Macedon, solved this puzzle simply and very creatively – by cutting it in half with his sword, exposing its ends and making it possible to untie. Alexander the Great went on to conquer all of Asia, just as the oracle predicted”.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

So how can we cut the intractable knot inside organizations and survive?

We all face increasing uncertainties and are having our trust battered. We are seemingly not rising to the challenges that seem to be growing in complexity in global and organizational context.Innovation has a vital role to play but it must be ‘treated’ differently.

Where do we start? Firstly we need to revisit the work on “adaptive enterprises and systems”. We need to find ways to deal with unpredictable, discontinuous change and make this more predictable for us to manage.

We lack often a real coherence of purpose; we lurch from one opportunity to another, from one quarter of results into another with often no consistency in our activities. Performance has been taken over by opportunistic behaviors.  Innovation often takes the real brunt of this.

Our intended strategy, moves suddenly into a deliberate strategy, and then somehow this gets abandoned or unrealized and slowly we replace this with a emergent strategy that is rapidly become our realized strategy that we present to the world, as a response to ‘factors outside our control’ for our often indifferent performance. Who really talks about the EXACT results achieved from innovation for instance? All we hear is just a general reference to it, to cloak innovation often in the ineffectiveness that lies within.

For innovation and many things going on within organizations they often lack a real coherence, they ‘signal’ inconsistent behaviors, especially within the organization. These bad signals simply build up all the tensions and dysfunctional aspects that middle order management and the organization in general has to mop up and cope with.

How can innovation thrive in this sort of chaotic mess? No wonder it never takes hold, it just has nothing ‘permanent’ to attach too and grow. Management needs a radical overhaul so innovation can be the vehicle for what is articulated but often poorly delivered on a consistent basis.

Context & Coordination needs designing in purposefully.

Again, where do we start? We start with ‘disconnect’ that organizations often have. The understanding of the underlying purpose of the organization beyond just making money and keeping the shareholders happy does need a deeper primary function, it needs re-articulating. Some organizations do a reasonable job of this but many simply don’t.

We need to restate our primary function and purpose far more in its societal contribution. We need to express the bounds as a governing set of principles that are known, reinforced and measured against. We then need to set about building in a consistent way, the capabilities that are able to produce the outcomes.

We need to build in the accountability into the roles that reflect that need to combine innovation, effectiveness and efficiency, that is needed so they can be managed equally side by side. We need to teach the ability to be adaptable and recognize the differences so as to actively manage the ‘creative’ conflicts and tensions.

Reduce the tension in the layers or structures

The really hard part of managing in larger organizations is in managing the layers and competing forces. Often we forget to reinforce acceptable behaviors, we leave role structures lose and incomplete and we set deliverables in often ‘woolly’ ways. This just promotes uncertainly and it is not an adaptive organization in leaving this so open. These unnatural built-in tensions create this shearing effect. They grind against each other, like tectonic plates that force further disruption and upheaval.

These different layers actually require several levels of reconfiguration designed into the organization. One really critical one to address and to ‘kill off,’ is the pressure of time. Time horizons to achieve different tasks often cannot be ‘legislated’ or ‘dictated’ but sadly they are forced on reluctant innovators responsible for delivery of new concepts.

We need to re-establish the difference between goals– within a certain period covered (one year), objectives– attained later but are progressed within the period and finally ideals– those unattainable but clearly possible concepts, that progress at slower rates and go well beyond normal goals. Innovation works within this environment, actually it will thrive.

Not just the incremental, but the radical, disruptive and breakthrough innovation craved for by the top management, can finally have a ‘decent’ time horizon to be managed through. Planning needs to account for all three horizons and publically discussed, irrespective of the industry you are in, it does not matter if you are building planes or developing food products.

We really should stop pretending that innovation is not so hard and actually state it is often incompatible to much of what we perform on a daily basis. The task of managing intangibles (unknowns) alongside tangibles (the known) needs greater appreciation of their complexities, and the difficulties of balancing the two for achieving  a ‘decent’ result.

Leadership, I believe, would need to understand innovation far more in this demanding environment of inquiry. No wonder it is often ducked and just vaguely talked about, about as much of innovation understanding is still poorly understood in its impacts and effect.

The opportunity of the network economy

Again, the realization of the growing web of networks that we are constantly engaging with, is our need to become part of a growing new more adaptive innovating enterprise. We need to encourage more empowerment to engage with outside parties, to explore, to investigate, to bring in and then diffuse and disperse in new ways. For this we need to design around more absorptive capacity that I’ve often written about. (See

Reducing activities and replacing these with outcome orientation

Innovation is no different from what we expect from efficiency or effectiveness; we want to see the outcomes.   We have struggled on many parts of this establishing of the really good metrics for judging innovation. They seem to get lost within organizations. Part of the innovation activities has been assigned to some other cost centre, or the capacity was already established and thus accounted for, and we often don’t revisit these and break these down and assign these clearly enough to the different activities in new ways to capture ‘real costs’, yet we should, but into outcome orientation ones that show a meaningful ‘return’ on investments put in. So many different, more thought- provoking questions can be asked for a greater engagement in the innovation process. Were the activities contributing to efficiency or innovation? We can judge these far better through the effectiveness of the outcome.

We need to balance existing performance engines for repeatable everyday tasks with innovation delivery engines for new activities. This split can help to make our organizations function more effectively. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have offered some thoughts on this at the implementation stage, although this thinking still needs more examination and discussion.

As Scott Anthony points out in his article “Negotiating Innovation and Control’ on the different ways to balance tension, there is one, in my opinion, that needs deeper investigation and development and that is the ‘ambidextrous’ one. This makes distinctions but links the parts of the whole organization by developing competing frames, not competing forces.I believe exploitation and exploration as natural break points within innovation. Roger Martin suggests in one of his books “The Opposable Mind” that we need to develop “integrative thinking” as part of this need to change but still work in these ambidextrous ways..

Ecosystems often reflect the shearing effect.

In any environment the ‘rates of exchange’ of the different components or constituents operate at different speeds. Interactions clearly occur far more at your own level of contribution, the different layers sometimes you are simply oblivious too or just ignore. The ‘in-spite of’ syndrome often kicks in to explain sometimes surprising success. Sometimes though, something catastrophic does occurs and then you do have to pay attention to this ( a merger, layoffs, threat of closure, withdrawal of funds) but the real reality is, different layers within organizations tend to be often simply oblivious, even impervious, to necessary change and just ‘does its job’ and it moves along, each actually constrain the others, not facilitating them as they could..

Maybe then, this is why so many organizations seem dysfunctional but do continue to survive, to limp along, until something really does disrupt their world, as the existing ecosystem just seems to allow different interactions and speeds. Can we not alter this though, perhaps in more thoughtful ways, rather than the ‘carrot and the stick’ approach or ‘fear and retribution’ methodologies often employed to achieve results?

The worrying thing is any dynamics within the system are dominated by the slow components, and the rapid components simply have to follow along. Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick. The only way to ensure a speeding up is to be coherent on the purpose, clarify the bounds and governing principles that need to be enacted.

Simply by consciously working on all the dysfunction points within an organization will certainly reduce the tensions, reduce the shearing and allow the organization in all its layers to ‘react’ and be allowed to come back into a balance, where innovation sits equally alongside efficiency, especially if both focus on outcome orientation and that certainly is not the current business as usual we see today.

Perhaps working on these dysfunction spots it might free up some real, much needed space for innovation to take a deeper hold. It does seem with all the suggested emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, if you accept this argument, it might be a good idea to have innovation alongside, as it does thrives more when there is creative tensions around!

Finding space for growing innovation

Making innovation a constant daily task for everyone to become involved is certainly a real problem for many organizations. Innovation does not sit comfortably alongside efficiency or effectiveness as it requires a much looser structure. It constantly ‘flies’ in direct conflict too much for many within organizations to create resistence and adoption. Innovation is looking to increase variability, nearly everything else in the organization is the exact opposite. How do we address this resistence and make innovation part of the daily working routines? Where can we start?

We have to open up our thinking to a number of “possible paths” to allow it to flow. I believe innovation should not be highly structured; it should be more loosely structured to allow possibility.

For a start individuals and organizations needs to explore multiple ways to learn and find the right pathway for innovation learning as they progress. This needs a more ‘dynamic social fabric’ to allow it to flow, it needs organizational encouragement. It needs mutual adaption and mutual adjustment. The understanding of absorptive capacity framework I’ve outlined before helps structure this.

Three simple rules have great intent.

Possible a starting point is through three simple rules I came across, but presently I can’t find the reference source on this regretfully. These seem to me to have a powerful intent:

  1. Mapping organizational and project innovation processes in the context of a shared responsibility for innovation relies on the rule of taking full responsibility that allows all “to see” the space of innovation that exists.
  1. Generalizing organizational and project knowledge in the context where knowledge is a central task relies on the rule of supporting routines for getting to that space and for keeping it open for all to share and explore:.
  • -This helps people be collectively conscious of what they know and how they now, build up and having expertise in are all dynamic routine activities to become competent experts.
  • – It also fosters respect for knowing and leaning from what others know and contributes to a growing improved skillset far more geared towards understanding higher-level conceptual frameworks
  1. Spiraling across cycles of adaptation in a context of constantly looking for new opportunities relies on the rule for constantly searching for new opportunities that creates an organization in which people are used to innovation that becomes a second nature– “the chaos is that we are constantly innovating”. Also the rule provides people with vital resource of having ways to deal with inevitable surprises of innovation.

We need to find ways to combined general knowledge for wide awareness of available options, and specialized knowledge for assessing the systemic impact of specific options. We need to move towards the development of “T-Shaped skills” being available constantly, to apply to different problems. Choice can stay fluid and it gradually ‘firms up’ to allow greater exploration and evaluation, as we ‘master’ knowledge and progressively experiment.

The ability to innovate is in the people, it is not in a procedures. Our pressing need is to structure innovation activity into everyday work, to make it dynamic in capability and become the new routine work.  I feel these three simple rules just seem to make such good sense as a starting point for making innovation part of every persons working day. Do you?

The Real Need Is Achieving Innovation Fitness

So how do we become innovation fit? is new and perhaps your possible innovation work-out gym.

Firstly stop and survey our world from a new advantage point

Can you imagine standing on top of a mountain, looking out across a vast expanse of nothing but mountains and valleys stretching out before you. If you squint hard enough you can just make out that somewhere in the hazy distance, the end point of your travels. The distance you have to travel towards that much needed innovation understanding, that are made up of so many different dynamics that make you and your organization that much fitter to compete in today’s challenging world seems really far off, or actually is it?

Exhilaration can quickly turn to reality.

Clearly while you are on top of this mountain you feel exhilarated to have even got up to this point. To even get to there you have already made a decision that you and your organization needs to become a more innovation one and needs to look beyond what you have, to what is possible, you are curious to explore this further, you have to, innovation is a strategic imperitive for, adding value, growth and improved wealth creation.

You have innovation choices

You had some vague ideas on what that might mean when you set out on that first climb to achieve this first advantage point. What you never expected once you had got to this particular mountain top was just what the vista that had so suddenly opened up in front of you, would actually mean. The sudden shock of what might be in front of you suddenly became overwhelming; it stopped you in your tracks. You felt suddenly confronted on what all this might actually mean. Do you go on or go back down?

Starting any journey always needs a first step.

While you had lived fairly comfortably down in the valley below, you simply kept looking up wondering what it would be like to become a more innovative organization. What was beyond that one mountain you constantly looked up too? You had survived, sometimes you even thrived but much of that ‘success’ was actually outside your own hands, it was often determined by some luck, often those abilities to react to something quickly enough on what went on around you. You followed others, you adapted and adjusted to changes going on and kept simply going but you felt this was not a really sustaining position. You wanted to change this, you felt you just wanted to be more in charge of your own innovation destiny. The question was how?

The big idea, a decision to walk a new path with a journey’s end in mind.

Then the big idea came to you. The way  to change was to make a critical decision, to move on by following a new path, a path towards innovation fitness. Why innovation, why the need to get fit? What was the journey end you had in mind?

To help on your journey I believe we need to raise our game and provide a greater fitness to the way we manage innovation. The dynamics of innovation need to be understood

A new web site dedicated to Making Your Organization Fit.

Innovation Fitness Dynamics is a structured approach, you might want to find out about. There is a fair amount of information already ‘posted’ but in any journey you need to get prepared, to be equipped. Jog on over:

This blog is about offering you a pathway towards achieving your own innovation fitness dynamics

The journey has many peaks and troughs, mountains and valleys to forge. Firstly you have to understand your present fitness to travel on any ‘change’  journey and in this particular case, to achieve any innovation fitness is highly dynamic and challenging. There are lots of fitness points needed to transform your innovation potential from a simple follower to a leader, recognized and respected for your ability to consistently deliver innovation in a sustaining way.

The end goal of your journey is simply “the greater fitness you can achieve in innovation capability the more it can equate to a new value creation“.  The exploring of the terrain that suddenly is opening up in front of you as you look over the mountains and valleys is in need of exploring, of travelling, of searching out those different combinations you require to get you to your own dynamics of innovation fitness understanding.

Welcome.  You will find here your guide, your companion, to be available to walk alongside you on your innovation journey.

The first step towards achieving any innovation fitness is to decide that you are are not going to stay where you are and so you become aware, the second step is a clear acceptance that you have to take a journey. The first step leads one to the second.

“One’s first step in wisdom is to question everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything”

–  George Christoph Lichten- physics professor and scientist 1742- 1799.

We begin our journey, a journey full of innovation fitness dynamics.Visit:

A recognition that innovation is a complex adaptive system

Maybe I’m taking on more than I can chew here but I’m going to attempt it. I apologise if it does not work for you, or you simply just give up on this but I am going to try to explain innovation as an complex adapative system. Why- I like the pain involved!  I’m certainly not in any shape or form an expert, or even that much of a student of complex systems, and what it fully consists off but I do need to explore this more, and a little shared pain helps in this as I go.

This issue is one I consistently come across in many references to innovation. The trouble is I’ve never been fully clear on what does make up a complex system for innovation. I’m not sure anyone does for complex systems either! But I want to establish a direct and clear set of links across to innovation without it involving me in ploughing through incredibly ‘dense’ academic papers on this subject.

It is amazing how Wikipedia is becoming rapidly a first call of reference, is it because it takes away all this density found in academic papers, or that the academic papers are written mostly for an informed group and for those of us, obviously sitting on the outside of this ‘elite’ group,we gravitate to where we seem welcome to gain a ‘reasonable’ and quick understanding. So this is my starting point.

Irrespective our starting point has to be definitions

Just as an aside, I’m presently having a debate/ discussion on whether social innovation’s definition needs changing and have been arguing do we need any more debates on definitions around (any) innovation but equally, having one, does always clarify the starting point, so borrowing from Wikipedia again, lets define:

A complex system is a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties (behavior among the possible properties) not obvious from the properties of the individual parts.A system’s complexity may be of one of two forms: disorganized complexity and organized complexity. In essence, disorganized complexity is a matter of a very large number of parts, and organized complexity is a matter of the subject system (quite possibly with only a limited number of parts) exhibiting emergent properties.

Complex adaptive systems are special cases of complex systems. They are complex in that they are dynamic networks of interactions and relationships not aggregations of static entities. They are adaptive in that their individual and collective behaviour changes as a result of experience

So did that help?

Thankfully whoever wrote the Wikipedia entries kindly gave some examples of complex adaptive systems. These include the stock market, social insect and ant colonies, the biosphere and the ecosystem, the brain and the immune system, the cell and the developing embryo, manufacturing businesses and any human social group-based endeavour in a cultural and social system such as political parties or communities. There are close relationships between the field of CAS and artificial life. In both areas the principles of emergence and self-organization are very important.

So does innovation also fit within complex adaptive systems?

If we take the suggested feature list presented on Wikipedia’s entry for complex systems ( ) I feel innovation fits. Let’s make some comparisons and this is my attempt to quantify innovation for being a complex adaptive system in the table below. It is a work-in-progress.

Components of an innovation complex adaptive system compared.

Complex System Features Innovations Adaptive Complex System
  Wikipedia Entry My Innovation related view
Cascading Failures Due to the strong coupling between components in complex systems, a failure in one or more components can lead to cascading failures which may have catastrophic consequences on the functioning of the system The amount of effort we put into the Stage-Gate process for innovation. If this is allowed to be sidetracked, given over to the whims and agenda’s of individuals as we progress innovation through the system we arrive at cascading failure and a poorly functioning end point in value due to consistent compromise.
Difficult to determine boundaries It can be difficult to determine the boundaries of a complex system. The decision is ultimately made by the observer As we open up more our innovation processes to joint collaborations, the borders between the parties will ‘blur’ and tough decisions made on who owns what will occur. This needs actively managing
Complex systems may be open Complex systems are usually open systems — that is, they exist in a thermodynamic gradient and dissipate energy. In other words, complex systems are frequently far from energetic equilibrium: but despite this flux, there may be pattern stability, see synergetics. As innovation is allowed to interact increasing outside our four walls it becomes more permeable, more shaped and influenced so we need to become far clearer in our goals and objectives we are trying to achieve. The battle of managing equilibrium against adaptability and agility will not be “Business as Usual”- it can’t be, we are consciously changing it.
Complex systems may be nested The components of a complex system may themselves be complex systems. For example, an economy is made up of organisations, which are made up of people, which are made up of cells– all of which are complex systems. Innovation is nested. We need to build an innovation business architecture made up of at the highest level, at the strategic level, and working down through several other “layers”, including people and processes.  The goal is to deconstruct the important drivers and influencers which will direct innovation activities.  From this we identify a innovation framework.
Dynamic network of multiplicity As well as coupling rules, the dynamic network of a complex system is important. Small-world or scale-free networks which have many local interactions and a smaller number of inter-area connections are often employed. Natural complex systems often exhibit such topologies. In the human cortex for example, we see dense local connectivity and a few very long axonprojections between regions inside the cortex and to other brain regions. The more we connect in the world the more we can reach new thinking for innovation. The internet allows us to make contact with anyone, on any thing. Strangers are being linked by a mutual objective or casual acquaintance that moves innovation into the small world network theory. We are working more towards scale-free networks as ‘hubs’ or centres increase their connections that offer a power-law influence over the others. We do need to layer innovation, like a cortex and we are constantly working on making connections for more innovation discoveries.
Complex systems may have a memory The history of a complex system may be important. Because complex systems are dynamical systems they change over time, and prior states may have an influence on present states. More formally, complex systems often exhibit hysteresis. The more we infuse ‘dynamics’ into innovation the more we can achieve.  As we improve our systems and structures the more dynamic they can become. They can over time in steps evolve to manage multiple innovation types. I call these dynamic capabilities for innovation fitness landscapes and am working towards a model on this.
May produce emergent phenomena Complex systems may exhibit behaviours that are emergent, which is to say that while the results may be sufficiently determined by the activity of the systems’ basic constituents; they may have properties that can only be studied at a higher level. For example, the termites in a mound have physiology, biochemistry and biological development that are at one level of analysis, but their social behaviourand mound building is a property that emerges from the collection of termites and needs to be analysed at a different level. It is the amount of interactions we can promote; the greater the potential is for breakthrough innovation or more radical concepts. The ability of an organization to allow time for increased interactions, the richer the possibilities can arise. There are lots of potential for unintended consequences in encouraging this consistent exploring but it will be the ability to manage these through the building of absorptive capacity through its three stages of accessing, anchoring and diffusion for new knowledge creation and exploitation.Our innovation behaviours will evolve the more we invest and discover the multiple options that reside in managing innovation as a discipline.
Relationships are non-linear In practical terms, this means a small perturbation may cause a large effect (see butterfly effect), a proportional effect, or even no effect at all. In linear systems, effect is always directly proportional to cause. See nonlinearity. The argument for innovation is it has to become non-linear. Most innovation is complex involving multiple agents, dynamic interactions combining in often unique ways. These fluctuate and combine and any innovation system has to have higher degrees of flexibility more for today, as many issues are difficult to solve in just (simple) linear ways.
Relationships contain feedback loops Both negative (damping) and positive (amplifying) feedbackare always found in complex systems. The effects of an element’s behaviour are fed back to in such a way that the element itself is altered. I have been recently discussing the different learning loops for innovation. When an event is part of a chain they often have a cause-and-effect on the next steps in the innovation cycle. These often form a loop, said to “feed back” into itself. These move towards ‘double or triple’ loops needed for greater innovation learning.

Source for the features used for a complex adaptive system has been taken from: and for the innovation complex adaptive system are my thoughts on where the feature does apply in innovation to fit.  W-I-P 09 02 2012

Do you agree, do you see other ones, or have I lost you?

Cracking the complexity code

There was a good article within the McKinsey Quarterly, published in 2007 entitled “Cracking the complexity code” written by three authors Suzanne Heywood, Jessica Spungin and David Turnbull that leads with “one view of complexity holds that it’s largely a bad thing- that simplification generally creates value by removing unnecessary costs”. Certainly we all yearn for a more simplified life, structure, organization, approach to systems or just reducing complexity in our daily lives to find time for what we view as improving its ‘quality’.

Within the article they argue there are two types of complexity- institutional and individual. The former concerns itself with the interactions within the organization, the latter is the way individuals or managers deal personally with complexity.

The real important take away from this article is when organizations treat complexity as something they must overcome, reduce or try to ignore they miss opportunities. Complexity, the authors argue, should be seen as a challenge to be managed, managed well, and its full potential exploited, not as a problem to be reduced or eliminated. It is through the nature of these complexities we achieve competitive advantage and can exploit more of the flow of knowleldge for those new sources of new profit and wealth creation.

They suggest organizations need to decide on where to hold complexity within any design and build the right capabilities where they matter. I would argue innovation certainly matters, and it is complex and needs to be understood as exactly that, and managed accordingly not in piece meal fashion. Complexity matters in building the right processes, skills and culture but because they don’t behave in linear ways and any ‘messing’ with the complexity and relationships within this can have an awful lot of unintended consequences.

The other correlations that fits for me

The late Everett Rogers offered us the diffusion of innovation, which gave us a frame to understand the process by which innovation spreads within social systems. Complex systems are equally about relationships among the members of a system. You move into more the emergent behaviours that become increasingly adaptive in response to the environment and what interacts within it. Diffusion occurs in complex systems where networks overlap, exchange and learn. Both Diffusion and Complex Systems adapt and adopt with the end point of making ‘it’ into more of an ordered system. The more you work the system, the fitter for purpose it becomes, the more it diffuses out, the more dynamic it becomes and increasingly valuable from these interactions.

Complex adaptive systems don’t operate in equilibrium conditions

I’ve been also in a set of debates in recent days around management looking for stability, for predictably, looking to take as much complexity out of the system as possible- often sometimes labelled as ‘variance’. This leads to enforcing business as usual as the modus operandi for innovation to ‘fit’  but we are faced with the very opposite in today’s world, the need to ’embrace’ reoccuring change. We need to manage complexity and we do need innovation so we do need to obtain as much diversity and non linear structure in what we do to allow diversity and all possible options. Our innovation systems are being forced ‘open’ making them even more complex and our energies will have to turn from ‘containment’ to more ‘adaptive’ and responsive ones to manage going forward.

We need to not reject complex systems we need to understand them, we need to embrace them and learn to determine what needs to be complex and what doesn’t. This requires a real ‘flow’ of different energies to maintain the organization of the system, it needs active managing. It will only become harder. For innovation to work, to thrive, to provide a sustaining payback, it needs to be seen as a complex adaptive system. We can’t keep hiding and pretending the ‘bits and pieces’ we play with and constantly fiddle with, called our innovation system, will be sufficent. We do need to understand innovation in its entirety.

We have choices of complexity

There are different types of complexity to manage. Work conducted by Julian Birkinshaw and Suzanne Heywood suggested four types of complexity. I only summarize these here.  Imposed complexity, those interventions both internally and externally that require ‘higher’ insight. There is the inherent complexity found with any organization and presently managed through striving to be more efficient and effective. There is designed in complexity, where innovation needs to fit more. These are choices about how, where and why an organization sets about its operation. These can be constrained, under invested in, even jettisoned but do have lasting consequences for the future of the organization. This is the area of strategic consequence as these can limit competitive advantaged from the level of innovation intensity chosen as an example. The forth is unnecessary complexity where increased misalignment resides, it is sometimes easy to recognize but often hard to let go as it sometimes makes up “the way things are run around here” and have a richness in history.

The challenge of complexity within innovation

If you can begin to indentify complexity that hampers effectiveness you can begin to remove it but be really clear on the effects if the complexity part you are removing is not the route to value and often innovation, which certainly does seemingly get constrained and caught up in this often shorter term pursuit of effectiveness for effectiveness sake and you don’t have bandwidth for innovation exploriation.

Recognize innovation is complex, recognize it does have to be handled carefully but it needs to also be fully understood for what it is, a complex adaptive system. It cannot be treated in the same way as effectiveness or efficiency can. It  needs ‘actively’ managing differently, for all the future opportunities it holds by placing the emphasis on building greater innovation capabilities to make it ‘dynamically’ work. Otherwise you end up with unexplained consequences to poorer performance from your innovation activities and often at a loss to explain why.

We do need to relate more to complexity as it comes with the turf if you want really lasting innovation.

Shifting paradigms, refreezing the organization for innovation

I would like to continue on “unfreezing the middle” for innovation to really take hold and have a greater mometum in organizations.  Largely it is about our ability to unlock those ‘frozen innovation moments.’ To radically redesign the approach to innovation that today is constantly occurring in ‘discreet parcels’ of innovation activity within organizations. It is this ‘selective’ approach I certainly believe needs changing.

To achieve this I believe the middle manager in organizations needs to make some significant changes within their perspectives of ‘how’ innovation must fit within the design of their organization. This will allow them to achieve a fundamentally different organizational state than many seemingly need but perhaps are stuck with existing designs at present. Perhaps they are not seeing a different perscribed pathway to take- the innovation pathway suggested here and built upon here can serve as thoughts

Innovation in organizations does need fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Phillips argues in his recent blog that “middle managers need new perspectives, new skills and new directions”. “We need to unfreeze the middle so the rest of the organization can adapt and change. Only then can innovation become what is needed it to be”- taken from his blog: “From smooth and steady to rough and ready”.  (

The question is how to unfreeze what we do today and relearn?

A good proven body of work has been built around psychologist Kurt Lewin’s suggested methodology that identifies the three stages of change that are still the basis of many approaches today- Unfreeze- Transition- Refreeze.

Much of the fear in innovation lies in ‘what is appropriate risk’ not just for the individual but for their organization. We are ‘’creatures’ that still want to go back to being safe, so we can feel we have a handle on events to experience that sense of control we always seeingly search for. We normally do not like discomfort except in ‘given’ intense periods when we are being challenged or threatened. The difficulty is you cannot maintain this ‘heighted’ threat, we seem to always (eventually) revert. What is needed is not to simply return to a former state but to replace that ‘state’ with a more appropriate platform of operating than before, built more on innovation for our future well-being and security.

The problem today, is that our world that we would love to be stable and be comfortable within, is being challenged more than ever. We need to find different positions of comfort to survive and thrive, innovation is in my opinion one of these. The problem is innovation in itself, can be uncertain and often risky. I would argue though that this can equally be a new position of stability, if you seek to master innovation and know its strengths and weaknesses intimately.

If we remain in our present states, then what I suggest as a ‘frozen state’ remains, we default back to what we know, based more on repeating patterns based on efficiency, effectiveness and doing what is necessary to manage on a daily basis. This, regrettably, is simply not good enough in today’s world. We need to change and in my last post I offered a number of approaches to structure this around change approaches (

We need to make some real, significant effort to push ourselves into learning to ‘master’ innovation. We require both ‘push’ methods to get this moving- the organization sets innovation learning as a distinct goal for instance- and we need ‘pull’ methods to keep any momentum going until it instils itself as the new norm we identify with and get a different sense of yes, comfort, within ourselves over innovations critical position.

Lewin suggests 3 steps to work through as a model: Unfreeze- Transition- Refreeze.

Firstly we need to unfreeze the existing core.

There are plenty of techniques to help in this that have innovation as the focal point. To name a few

  1. Burning platforms- create a crisis or agree there is a real crisis
  2. Challenge the comfort zone and shake things up
  3. Provide proof that situations being faced are changing- cold hard evidence
  4. Restructuring deliberately to force change into the system
  5. Offering fresh goals and visions for innovation as formal corporate objectives
  6. Provide opportunities to learn, to be trained in innovation techniques and methods
  7. Shift the rewarding metrics to outcomes based on innovation activities
  8. Recognize that many of the existing contributions made do make up the past, not so much the future of what is needed to be achieved, based on growth and wealth creation.

Then we have to make a set of transition points.

These are the fuel to keep the innovation engine nourished and moving in the new innovation pointing direction.

  1. Inspire the organization to achieve some remarkable new things to change the existing conceptions.
  2. Provide internal and external stimulus in coaching, inspiration talk’s, providing an innovation knowledge site.
  3. Set about an organised training and education programme for innovation understanding that this moves in steps of learning.
  4. Re-educate by exposing more within the organization to fresh alternative thinking, both with your industry or in other sectors that you can ‘take and apply’ appropriately.
  5. Offer open spaces, ‘safe’ environments to learn and experiment, to trial and sometimes fail but learn from these moments the positives and re-apply them.
  6. Establish innovation champions to be the support team to ‘go to’ for advice.
  7. Push beyond incremental innovation by slowing turning up the heat so it gets more visible and noticed. See my blog on different dominant designs of organizations
  8. Learning to take first baby steps, followed by improving the pace within innovation activities by using different experimental, prototyping, piloting methods and approaches. Grow the confidence and talk of the learning from any failures along the way to improve.

Lastly we look to refreeze the ‘state’ into a new innovative one.

We actually do need to  refreeze but in a more responsive, proactive, agile way – with clear innovation intent to achieve a end goal. For instance, the goal of being seen to have a set of clear competitive distinct positions, recognized and acknowledged both internally and externally parties and then, measured in clear ways that added value that is seen in results, not just talked about as a ‘future promise’ based on present planned activities.

  1. We need to burn any bridges to ensure there is no way back to the old ways, where innovation was talked about but not enacted upon
  2. Make sure you achieve the ‘show me the money moment’- your evidence stream of innovation activity and success.
  3. Keep the focus on being ‘relentless’ and focusing on the future and why innovation is an important part of this in increased activity and performance
  4. Keep returning to the ‘rationalization’ of this so each action is a validation of a path being travelled which encourages certain actions.
  5. Make sure rewards are aligned to the new ‘innovation’ way, place rewards into the mid-term as much as the short term, often called golden handcuffs but valid in institutionalizing change through innovation.
  6. Build all the efforts over time into the very social fabric of the organization and make the middle manager responsible for engineering and designing the innovation mantle needed to be worn by all.

Passing through the three learning stages

Unlocking the innovating potential within organizations always needs to pass through different learning stages. The middle manager lies at the core. Focus on this as your ‘unlocking’ point and establishing a way to build in the necessary competencies and capabilities in a well thought through innovation development programme and process surely can allow innovation to take hold?

Until we approach innovation in a clear, methodical learning way, innovation, that deep capacity for innovation, will never fully ‘take hold’ in organizations as the middle of the core remains frozen in the past of efficency and effectiveness only. We do need to change the innovation middle core.

Unfreezing the middle, seeing a different innovating prospective

This past week we had a #innochat tweet session( around Jeffrey Phillip’s book “Relentless Innovation”( ). The chat was framed around a set of questions here ( ) but basically the premise of Jeffrey’s thinking was “can it be possible to shift from business as usual (BAU) to innovation business as usual”?

He suggests that one of the most significant challenges for innovation is the fact that many firms have spent years, if not decades, creating business models and operating processes that are exceptionally efficient and effective but neglect the essential part that innovation plays.

Equally the middle manager is so focused on the delivery of short term results through effective organization and pursuing efficiencies they have little ‘slack’ within the system to learn and build innovation into it.

I would possibly argue the very people that we are expecting to manage the ‘dynamics’ within organizations, the Middle Managers, are seeking the very opposite- doing everything possible to keep it as stable and consistent as it can be.

So how can this change?

Change is the word. If you accept the premise of BAU and Middle Managers holding back innovation, then we need to contemplate change, a more radical agenda of change. Jeffrey in his book goes some of the way in offering up different solutions to this but I think we should think deeper and harder, around a fully fledged innovation change management programme. Let me offer some thoughts.

How can we move the needle and tilt it more towards innovation? I can think of five immediate ones  to contribute to this debate that would significantly advance the change called for in Jeffrey’s book.

1.       Core competences need to be changed

Recognizing the middle manager holds the organization together, they are the glue that connects the organization with the leadership and enable the ‘forces’ to flow. Lets turn their existing core competencies on their head. The mix of primary, critical and core capabilities that are the measuring point for the MM’s new core competency set.

  • Primary becomes the base not the pinnacle  . What they do in efficiency and effectiveness remains as their primary capability- you don’t alter this, it is too engrained. This can only change over time and through their inner awareness and recognition that innovation needs to be embedded, alongside the existing ‘fixation’ on efficiency and effectiveness. Don’t try to radically change, make progressive step changes. Efficiency and effectiveness clearly remains the inventory repertoire of solid capabilities so as you set about to build a new platform, based on innovation, it layers and interlocks.
  • You target selected critical capabilities to learn and explore. You provide the MM a clarity of the new and emerging critical capabilities they need to build up. These are the capabilities that will provide the greatest impact for competitive advantage, not internal but external in all its orientation.
  • At the top of the pyramid is the core capabilities they need to have. This cluster of capabilities is centred on the critical capabilities to make innovation main stream, to be a daily part of their thinking, their make-up, their intent to ensure happens. These differ according to the role, area of focus and contribution.

2.  We need to focus the middle manager on different learning concepts

Peter Senge comes to mind for rethinking his work for establishing an innovation learning organization. His five main characteristics are system thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision and team learning. In (brief) summary these are:

  • Systems thinking. The idea is to introduce a distinct innovation system thinking approach as a conceptual framework that allows people to study innovation as bounded objects that make up the innovation ecosystem, that needs to be in place within their organization. Overtime it will help measure the performance of the organization as a whole, and of its various components, and the organization rewards on the ‘whole’ not on selected parts. This shifts the ground for middle managers to manage within.
  •  Personal mastery. The commitment by an individual to the process of learning is known as personal mastery. This is their part of the core capabilities they need  to be seen as making a direct contributino to the competitive advantage the organization believes is its set of goals. The workforce can learn these more quickly once identified, and apply them, so it is therefore important to develop a culture where personal mastery is practiced in daily life, based on clear capabilities needed to be practised.
  • Mental models. The assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models and these are seemingly, stuck more in the efficiency and effectiveness ones at present. To become a learning organization, these models must be challenged. We have to guard against the individuals and middle managers that tend to espouse theories, which are what they intend to follow, and theories-in-use, which are all what they actually do. Also over time we must shift the organisations ‘memories’ which preserve certain behaviours, norms and values. Existing unwanted values need to be discarded in a process called ‘unlearning’ and allow time for new learning and maximised through applying ‘triple loop learning.’
  • Shared vision. The development of a shared vision on the place that innovation occupies. It becomes important in motivating the staff to learn, to relate too, to create those essential common identities of the value of innovation’s contribution and their distinct contributing part in this. This sharing and identity gives real focus and energy for learning.
  •  Team learning. The accumulation of individual learning constitutes the last aspect, into team learning. The value of the middle manager in bringing people and their contributions together is vital, this is done in efficient and effective ways but also in increasing experimentation to understand and find the ones that often just seem to work . This needs structuring  for encouraging boundary crossing and openness for both shared meaning, and shared understanding.

3. Working the innovation learning ‘muscles’ through the three learning loops

So in our new learning we recognize the value of the three learning loops- the first loop, the single one is reinforcing what we do, whereas the second loop or double loop is learning through increased insights what we can do, what is possible, what and who can contribute to ‘our’ advancement of innovation in establishing competitive advantage in these two way, increasingly open exchanges.

The third loop is the real learning loop- the one where innovation takes hold, where the establishing principles, capabilities and competencies goes beyond insight and discovery- the beliefs in what we should be- our triple learning set of loops. Moving from a certain static, predictable level to a more dynamic one where innovation thrives. This is the multiple conversation loop, built on enquiry, one feeding off another, a more open (innovation) approach and allowing these to evolve, often in seemingly unstructured ways.

One of the best visuals for reinforcing the loops is shown below. Again it is by Peter Senge and I use it a lot in any change programme. It is where you are heading too for innovation to become part of the BAU or in Jeffrey’s parlance of “innovation business as usual”

Reinforcing loops for innovation change management results

So the middle manager has to think through a new agenda for innovation change and the organization has to ‘fully’ provide the necessary support and structure for them to move towards this (radical) change in their managing within the middle.

4.       My forth contribution is applying a coaching framework

I wrote about this in a recent blog ( ) on “the value of having an innovation coach”. In this I offered the four stages we all go through in changing behaviours that I really believe can be applied here specifically.

  • Unconscious Incompetence– this is often a self reflection stage where the person, in our case the middle manager, reflects and draw out areas of incomplete knowledge on innovation. These become the agenda to learn about and need organization support.
  • Conscious Incompetence– From these reflections you gain insights, you begin to explore tested tools and techniques, you begin to frame new references that are relevant, you begin to explore and experiment, the middle manager encourages others within the organization to do the same. They look consciously  for growing confirmation that it has real value in contributing to advancing innovation towards competitive advantage.
  • Conscious Competence– As you begin to ‘grasp’ differences this enables experiences to build up so a middle manager can do what he is good at, look at the alternatives with a growing confidence and some ‘matching’ begins to occur and you see an emerging path for innovation action beginning to emerge from this.
  • Unconscious competence– the final part where the impact of what has been learnt, understood, investigated and explored has a real personal impact. It seeps into the make-up of the person and changes there ‘going forward’ behaviour. These comprehend the value of  innovation meaning differently than their original perspective and build their personal core competency levels. These become their clustering points of contribution and expertise as the way they will manage innovation going forward as the increasing value ‘gels’ for them and it integrates more and more into the existing efficiency and effectiveness mind set to move BAU into Innovation BAU .

5. Lastly I still enjoy using the ADKAR methodology of change

In any change we pass through different aspects, the building blocks for successfully navigating any change. For instilling innovation as part and parcel of the day-to-day, working within an organization and ‘radiating’ from the middle manager this is achieved, but only over time and in clear steps.

The ADKAR methodology was created by Prosci Research back in the nineties. Effective management of the people dimension of change requires managing five key goals that form the basis of the ADKAR model .

ADKAR is simply the acronym for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. These are the elements of the the most fundamental requirements for anyone to succeed and maintain change. Once you identify the first weak element, you have identified the resistance to change. Therefore, these elements cannot be reordered or skipped. You need to move from one to the next once understanding has been fully established along the ADKAR escalating model .

  • Awareness of the need to change
  • Desire to participate and support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change (and what the change looks like)
  • Ability to implement the change on a day-to-day basis
  • Reinforcement to keep the change in place

This model tries to attack the root of the resistance, in this case establishing innovation within the day-to-day working model of the organization. What really gives this model the edge is its emphasis on individual change and each middle manager has different needs, innovation competencies and understanding to learn to embed in them, the change needed. Change is often seen very differently, person to person.

So these are my 5 thoughts to contribute to embedding innovation into business as usual.

Until we approach innovation in a clear, methodical learning way, it will never fully ‘take hold’. Building innovation capabilities and competencies is where I hang my advisory hat- no shame in that- and we need to recognize the value of having a more structured approach to tackling this. Otherwise we all remain frozen in perspectives (personal), in implementing ‘parcels’ of innovation skills that is not ensuring innovation has a holistic approach from vision, through mission into its delivery. We suffer far too many ‘frozen innovation moments’ .

Your dominating innovation design is?

Each organization seems to favour one design approach over another when it comes to how they innovate. It favours either the more comfortable repeatable zones or is determined to push the boundaries out on its innovation activities.

We often talk about simply incremental and radical, yet we do have other choices such as a more ‘distinctive’ design or one that sets out to be ‘disruptive’.

Let me offer this for thinking through on your fits on the innovation path you want to take and ‘flag’ some areas you need to consider. Each degree of innovation (or type) has considerable organization design issues to think through.

We have different designs for innovation and they have implications

Let me explain these a little more

Degree is the scale to increase the intensity of innovation- incrementally, distinctively, radically or disruptively. Each of these ‘degree’s’ have implications and aspects for the organization to consider.

Type provides the environment you are operating within. Incremental innovation is fairly predictable, it is the ‘easier’ option, and it tends to be a fairly static place to be, everything is fairly predictable; you keep refining the practice of innovation. For distinctive you are extending your innovating into good practice, you are looking to push design, to offer something beyond the existing extension. I feel design innovation fits really well within this type. Radical is more about learning, being alert, agile and experimental, preparing to take some risks but pushing beyond the existing boundaries, into emergent practice.   Lastly disruptive, a high risk approach where it is very much leading edge, self generated, self- inflicted but offering potentially high reward that changes existing dynamics and is often novel and experimental in how you handle this in practices.

Approach is the way you set about innovation. Incremental for the vast majority is often through a very ad hoc innovation process and not systematic in their approach in linking strategic with their innovations.  Although you could argue and argue well, that the vast majority of consumer goods companies have a very highly systematic process to churn out incremental products constantly but I don’t think this type of incremental innovation gives ‘huge’ additional growth value, it tends to maintain the ‘steady’ state.

I think the more it is systematic the more the innovation moves from a ‘incremental’ to ‘distinctive’ as it is the richness of combinations that separate the product or service. For instance you redesign the container, you add different ingredients that are healthier, you reposition your product in brand message, you offer a more emotive attachment- this becomes more distinctive, more enduring than incremental. Radical or disruptive is far more fluid, adaptive and constantly searching out, less reliant on a given process, more on the nature of the proposition to drive it through to translation, not on a given process or accepted methodology.

Fit deals with the space you chose to operate within. The more you chase up the degree of innovation the more you need to challenge your organizations structure, response mechanism and adaptation.

Without going into the Cynefin framework explained here it has considerable value as it offers a ‘sense making model to think through’ for you to reflect on the type of innovation and its difficulties.

Innovation is certainly complex and the Cynefin framework offers an excellent complexity model for being made more aware. It helps you to think differently and apply the necessary changed mindsets needed for these four innovation types.

Conditions are more to do with how you work. These are too a large degree the ability within the organization to adapt and how you learn. If you don’t communicate well, you don’t seek to learn from mistakes or each other the learning loops never actually happen. You need to find ways to question and re-question if you want to push the boundaries.

Where do you see your organization?

So these are my dominant design structures for firms when it comes to innovation. Can they operate across all four simultaneously – highly doubtful -especially if you have a culture, industry and leadership that stays within the incremental space or a given comfort zone. It is really hard to unlearn this repeating pattern of innovation and attempt to move into the different degree’s of radical or disruptive particularly, yet I hear so many talking about this, as a need to do but can they?

The implications of the degree of innovation does have significant implications and organization design challenges, so be warned.